There is nothing quite like seeing young animals play, and it has been such a treat on my sunset/twilight wanders lately to see a pair of fledgling red-tailed hawks in Wildcat Canyon cavorting in the strong winds up in the hills for the past week or two. They are still sometimes unsteady as they soar in the air, and during their landings – wheeling awkwardly in the winds, or alternating repeatedly landing and taking off from a hilltop trying to ride fast moving gusts, like a feathered, bouncing ball. Sometimes their parents were silhouetted in the background above them, unmoving in the strong winds as if hanging from an invisible thread in the sky as they hunted. For the first week or so, every time the two young ones were in the air, they were loudly vocalizing non-stop, as if shouting “holy shit I’m flying, holy shit I’m flying!!!” That’s how it felt, watching their exuberance in the sky.
Despite their awkwardness at times, there were other times that they seemed to be quickly mastering flight in the high winds – chasing each other over the hills and around tree tops, stooping and diving on one another, locking talons in the sky, and pushing each other off of perches – even “barrel rolling” in the sky like ravens often due (an acrobatic maneuver during which they flip over on their back for a few moments in the sky). Sometimes I forget that I’m without any wings as I watch them, feeling like at any moment I could jump up and join them. It looks like just about as much fun as any living thing can have.
Hopefully this pair will survive longer than last year’s young – there were three from what were likely this same pair of adults, and none of them survived more than two weeks after fledging. Once night comes, it is the domain of the great-horned owls … and there are a lot of them here. It’s encouraging that they’ve lasted this long, soar on young ones!
still as breathtaking as ever
brother to Owl
light to dark
day to night
this is a pair of red-tailed hawks, likely mates, soaring over the cliffs in Western Sonoma County CA
one of them had particularly beautiful plumage, with very fine barring that can be seen with a picture enlarged …
also seen was a vulture prowling low along the cliffs over the Pacific
I was walking through Union Square in New York City this week. The city had its seasonal holiday vibe happening, despite the relatively warm weather and steady rain that was falling. As I strolled from the subway in the park with the many other people, in this man-made clearing among the tall buildings around it, I suddenly had an impulse to turn around and look up. I turned almost fully around, and above me, a flock of rock doves (pigeons) was in determined flight – and in fast pursuit was a familiar form that at first didn’t register with my brain due to the surroundings. A red-tailed hawk!
The hawk made a reasonable attempt at grabbing one of the pigeons in flight, then it alighted on top of one of the “canyon” walls at the north end of the square. It was a comical sight – the red-tail was sitting on the east side of the building, its head turning back in forth in what seemed to be bewilderment, and about 30 pigeons sitting on the west side of the building about 40 feet from the hawk. It was as if there was an official “time-out,” and the players in this game were on the sidelines waiting for the next play.
It seems I was the only person to see this happen, but luckily my spinning around in the middle of the square watching birds flap around, and staring up in the rain at what probably seemed like nothing to the casual observer, was just a minor crazy behavior in this place. I couldn’t help but smile at the whole scene. Since before I can remember I’ve had a connection with Red-Tailed Hawks, and to see one here in amid the concrete and steel was like seeing an old friend. What made me turn around? I don’t know, but I’m thankful for it.
Red-Tails are adaptable animals, but they have been one of the more recent additions to the city-scape, joining some of the other animals that have been able to survive in the shadows of intense human development like Raccoon, Opossum, Rat, Mouse, Bat, Fox, Crow, Pigeon, Gull, Peregrine Falcon and Others. It made me think about one of the first documented red-tails that came to call a city, this city, home – a hawk named Pale Male.
Pale Male (so named due to his distinctively pale plumage) made a big impact on my life, as he has on the lives of many others. I was living in New York City in 2004, on the Upper West Side near Central Park. It was a particularly hard time in my life, and I was struggling to find a connection to the Earth in the middle of the chaos of the city. I would walk through the Park, through The Bramble, almost able convince myself I was somewhere else in that island of earth and plants and animals smack in the middle of one of the biggest cities on Earth. Once through, I would go to the Boat Pond and sit, hoping for a glimpse of Pale Male or his mate or offspring. We were kindred spirits, neither born of the city, but both in it. Surviving. It was surreal seeing this large raptor gliding above the yellow taxi cabs on 5th Avenue, or perched on the railing of a balcony on an apartment building. But there he was.
And still is. Life in the “wild” is hard, and there are many perils for any animal to deal with – especially in the city. In addition to all the regular threats, city birds deal with high densities of people, fast moving traffic, and most the deadly threat, rat poison. Many animals consume rats or pigeons that are still alive but have ingested poison, and can die from acute poisoning or from an accumulation of toxins. Not only was this bird one of the first to be documented making his territory in a large city – nesting and rearing young – but he’s still around. He has had many young, and some of those birds now also call parts of the city home. It’s an amazing saga. He has seen many of his mates succumb to rat poison or other perils, yet he still calls 5th Avenue home. It’s estimated that he hatched in 1990 – making him almost 25 years old!!
Much of his life has been documented in photographs tirelessly by a fellow named Lincoln Karim – his website, palemale.com, has some amazing photos of this bird and other wildlife in Central Park. He is out there photographing him almost everyday, since 2002! When I would go to the Boat Pond in Central Park, Lincoln often had his “rig” sitting out there – a large cart that carried his telescopic lens that was the size of my torso, and a large monitor screen so that other people could see the bird as seen through his high magnification lens. Many many thanks to Lincoln for his documentation and for sharing all his work and allowing us to be part of Pale Male’s incredible life.
Thanks also to Marie Winn, author of Red-Tails In Love (about Pale Male and one of his mates) and one of the original observers of Pale Male. She has documented his life beautifully in her book and also on her blog where she also chronicles the wildlife of Central Park.
And thanks to Rachel Carson and all the people who worked (and work) hard to regulate pesticide use and raise awareness about raptors and wildlife, which has allowed Red-Tails and many other bird species to rebound to the point of repopulating to healthy numbers once again.
Was the bird I saw in the square a descendant of Pale Male? It’s very likely, but hard to know for sure.
Thank you Red-Tailed Hawk.
so many babies right now! in addition to the exciting black hawk / red-shoulder nest and eyas (in my last post), i’ve gotten to see some other fun sites.
the three eyasses at the fruitvale bridge have successfully fledged and are learning to fly. when i was there last week, they were still unsteady in their flight, and one was doing a lot of “practice flapping” while gripping tightly onto the bridge span. so fun to watch. he took a little time to stare down at the strange two-legged staring up at him. when the adult female showed up (empty taloned), one of the young kept harassing her and pushing her off her perch. they are a hungry lot!
i stumbled on a nest that i hadn’t ever seen before, after hearing the young begging for dinner. this red-tailed hawks nest near wildcat canyon should be vacant very soon – these young are looking ready to go. i saw their parents hunting until well after dark trying to keep their bellies full, not an easy job!
i’m still hopeful that i’ll get to see some young harriers soon, for surely the behavior of the the pair (pictured in some previous posts) in the marsh by the bay indicates they are around.
i ran into another old friend on friday … a dark morph (or rufous/intermediate morph) red-tailed hawk that has spent the last few winters in berkeley. it’s fun when i get to know an individual animal, and this one has been around for a few years but i just saw her for the first time this season about a week ago. i was happy to see her again.
when i first saw her we gave each other a little wave (ha!)
right about the time that i saw her, a huge flock of crows was moving through the area and it didn’t take long for some of them to spot her too. crows love to harass red-tails, and today was no different. first one or two took up the chase, and soon there was a flock of close to 50 crows escorting her out of the area.
i’ve mentioned this before, but there are some corvid researchers (i can’t remember who) who say that this mobbing behavior could be a corvid “right of passage” – which makes some sense to me because there is very little reason that i can think of for the birds to do it other than fun or to establish social ranking.
The coyotes in Wildcat Canyon live an interesting life … living on the outskirts of a major urban area in a mixed-use regional park. They share the space with people, dogs off-leash, cattle, and nosy trackers like me. I often see dogs chase these ‘yotes, but they always seem to evade with ease. Many times though I see them flowing over the grass covered hills, using little dips and drainages as cover in broad daylight unseen, with unsuspecting people and dogs walking just yards from them. They seem to have a sixth sense for avoiding discovery. And many times they are hunting gophers in these same areas, gingerly walking over the landscape in a slow, focused and methodical way, waiting for the furry prey to disturb the soil and give away their location just inches below the surface. Given the number of individuals I’ve seen/heard in a small area so far, I’d say they are doing pretty well.
The female shown above is exceptionally beautiful, with a vibrant, glowing coat of mixed browns and grays and contrasting black fur along her spine and tail. She seemed really healthy, and she didn’t notice me as I photographed her scouring the hillside for gophers.
It is also the time for many birds to be courting, and the red-tailed hawks were out in numbers today after the brief rain, dancing and soaring through the blue skies along with two pairs of ravens. In an unusual role reversal, I saw one of the red-tails chase a raven – usually it’s the ravens/crows harassing the tails. Once the sun set, one of the multiple pairs of great-horned owls that call this area home were hooting to each other in the mixed Monterey Pine and Eucalyptus forest at the top of the hill. There is no better compliment to the still feeling just after sunset, when twilight has usurped the day and that electrical charge starts to build signaling the changing of shifts, time for the creatures of the night to start their day.
Sunday was a warm and clear day on the coast, strange weather for January – it felt like summer (well, summer anywhere besides the coast and the Bay area). We started the day by witnessing some interesting behavior by a couple of deer that caught our attention. The deer, which appeared to be doe and a yearling (nearly the same size), were standing with heads raised and their focus on something in the chaparral to the north of us. The yearling took off trotting, then bounding, right towards the path we were on, seemingly unconcerned with our presence. It then stopped and turned around, bounding back to its mother. The two of them then started a slow walk in the direction of the threat, with the mother in the lead. Shifting our position back down the trail, we were able to see what was causing the concern …
I was only able to catch the tail-end of the bobcat as he disappeared into a coyote bush (for the moment now a bobcat bush) – a large male that uses this particular territory who’ve we’ve tracked and seen around here before. Although I think it’s rare for bobcats to take down full grown deer in this area, fawns are fair game. This particular young one is probably big enough to be safe, but given the respect that the deer on this day showed towards him, and on another occasion when I witnessed his presence disturb them, I’d say he is still viewed as a threat. He seems to be a large bobcat based on his tracks and scat.
The most interesting part of this whole interaction was when the deer started to FOLLOW the bobcat – the doe literally walked right to where the cat had disappeared, and she seemed to be chasing HIM out of the area! Good stuff.
On the way in to the lagoons, I spotted an American bittern in a small pond along the pathway – I’ve seen one on the far shores of the larger lagoon, but never one so out in the open here. It was shaping up to be another good day, with lots of live animal sightings. Later in the day on the return trip it was still there and posed for some pictures in the beautiful light.
As we approached the lagoon, a resident great-blue heron was hunting in the shallows.
There were quite a few sets of trails and tracks on the dunes, but the striped skunks were most prevalent. This is their mating season, during which they really seem to be wandering around outside of their normal areas with higher frequency – sadly it is also marked by the large number of road kill skunks at this time of year. Notably absent was the female bobcat that usually patrols this area. It is also breeding season for the cats, so her daily patterns are likely interrupted by the breeding impulse. I also spotted at least one golden eagle soaring above the hills, only the second time I’ve seen one in this particular area. Along with a ferruginous hawk sighting (a somewhat rare winter visitor in this area) and the great view of an intermediate morph red-tailed hawk, we had some great raptor and other bird sightings. During the day at various times the family of otters was visible on the upper lagoon, but I never really was close enough for any pictures. Just their presence is a joy, watching them even from afar is so fun.
As we were resting by the lagoon, a pie-billed grebe made it’s way out of the shallows by the cattails with quite a prize – after straining to identify what it was, we realized it was a small bass! The grebe paddled around with the fish in its beak for at least five minutes, occasionally shaking it and twice losing it in the water, but diving down and quickly recapturing it. Finally, after almost ten minutes, it downed the fish whole!!
Another great day out there, I’m so thankful for that place and to be able to wander in it. Thanks also to Richard Vacha and everyone who participated in this Marin Tracking Club excursion for making it a fun and educational day.
i don’t have a lot of words right now. one morning at a place like this is the same as reading 1000 books, combined with touching 1000 textures, smelling 1000 smells, hearing 1000 sounds, tasting 1000 flavors, seeing 1000 treasures and feeling a 1000000 heart strings of life.
we were treated at the beginning of the morning just after sunrise to the five resident Otters foraging in the lagoon, and a visitor that I have never seen before in this immediate area … a golden Eagle!
the above picture was of a creature foreshadowing things to come – this red-legged Frog (?) was a precursor to SO many Frog tracks in the sand, along with many deer Mice and brush Rabbit tracks – appearing in the middle of bare sand dunes for reasons unexplained. I surmise the new moon allowed some expanded forays for these normally reclusive species who stick to the cover of the plants on the edges of the dunes during most times.
brush Rabbit tracks
Frog tracks (likely red-legged Frog)
river Otter scent marking on the dunes
Bobcat (on right) and some type of amphibian (Salamander) tracks on left – perhaps an Ensinitas?
deer Mouse tracks with tail drag
beautiful clear front tracks of a red-legged Frog (right) along with deer Mouse tracks on the left
great-horned Owl tracks leading into a take-off spot
great-horned Owl trail …
WOW! what a find!!!! the trail seen in the picture from the left is a great-horned Owl coming in for a landing (final landing spot seen in the center of the picture). you can see it’s wing and tail feather imprints in the sand. also you can see a Raccoon trail diagonally across the picture from lower right to left (occurring after the Owl), along with faint Frog tracks paralleling the Raccoon, and some two-legged tracks at the top.
another view of the great-horned Owl landing spot (along with feather marks in sand!!), and its trail leading away from the landing point – ultimately to a take-off spot around 10 yards away. again, you can see the Raccoon trail across the center, and many other tracks in the background.
great-horned Owl tracks
a beautiful black-tailed mule Deer trail
Sanderling trail (?) … though I’m open to other interpretations … and some faint deer Mice, Frog and insect trails – this was found in the lagoon sand dunes, far from the surf
more Sanderling (?) tracks
another (!) great-horned Owl trail in the sand dunes!
one of my favorites to see live (but seldom a dependable sight), there were plenty of north american river Otter tracks around
the turkey Vultures are always hanging around for a meal, and this (faint) track (among smaller shore bird tracks) showed that they are quick to come in on the remains of shore birds who are predated at the lagoon by a varied cast of opportunists …
Bobcat tracks in sediment / algae
Bobcat trail in sediment / algae
Bobcat tracks (nice shot of front and rear) – based on the size and the shape, we decided it was likely a male
likely a Bobcat scat – it contained almost purely feathers!
Osprey – one of the NINE raptor species that we were treated to seeing on this day (Osprey, northern Harrier, white-tailed Kite, Kestrel, peregrine Falcon, turkey Vulture, Red-tailed hawk, Ferruginous hawk, and golden Eagle!). My friends also saw a Cooper’s hawk as they were driving out.
Red-tailed hawk on dunes
these snowy Plovers, a highly endangered species, were using human tracks in the sand as wind breaks from the increasing gusts coming in from the ocean – it was pretty adorable
this peregrine Falcon was not welcome company for the Kestrel who was attempting to escort it out of the area
the “mud hen,” or Coot – top of the menu for many predators at this time of year here. when the Otters come by, they move to the shore and band together, waiting for them to pass
for reasons still not understood (by me), the Ravens were harassing the Red-tailed hawks as usual. perhaps it is for fun or to prove social status … fun, being something that the Ravens seem to incorporate into their lives all the time, evidenced by their frolicking in the air lifts caused by the oncoming winds into the dunes. seeing them play in the air is like watching Otters in the water, the energy is simply fun!
lots of black-tailed mule Deer around in the fields, where we also saw lots of Badger sign
a cool shot of some black-tailed mule Deer tracks in the sand (with some two different bird tracks on the right of the frame)
the only animal signs that I might have expected to see and didn’t on this day were the grey fox and jack rabbit. grey Fox sign isn’t often seen right in this area, but jack Rabbit is. curious.
what a great day out at Point Reyes National Seashore, this place is such a gift – may it be protected for all this diversity of life to thrive, always.